There are many different kinds of "Messiah" performances. Handel's beloved oratorio can be presented by a full orchestra and a chorus of hundreds, or with a small group of players and a correspondingly select interweaving of a few well-chosen voices. A conductor may decide to present the whole work (unlikely, since "Messiah" can last three hours before intermission) or trim judiciously. Then there is the question of singers -- does one opt for one of those plummy, maternal contraltos beloved of the Victorians or a more "correct" male alto?
A shorthand description of the "Messiah" the National Symphony Orchestra is offering this year with the Cathedral Choral Society, under the direction of J. Reilly Lewis, might run as follows: big chorus, small orchestra; all of Part 1, selections from Parts 2 and 3, with a mezzo-soprano to spin out arias such as "He was despised" and "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion." Last night at the Kennedy Center, the prevailing mood of the performance was lively and industrious. This is, if you like, a feel-good "Messiah" rather than one that stresses high drama or metaphysical searching. If that sounds like a put-down, it isn't meant that way: The world is full of a number of things, and it is to the eternal glory of "Messiah" that it can flourish in so many guises.
In general, the choral singing was more involving than the orchestral playing. Indeed, the NSO sounded rather stiff in its solo numbers -- the Overture and the "Pastoral Symphony" -- and only really let loose in "Hallelujah!," where a booming emphasis was placed on brass, timpani and organ. But the chorus sounded fresh, eager, healthy and fluent throughout the evening. Even the most difficult passages (such as the stratospheric soprano line in "And He shall purify") rolled trippingly off a hundred tongues.
Lewis struck an intelligent balance between musicological dogma and common sense. He made no effort to establish the NSO as an "early musick" band. Nor was he afraid to milk the warm, rich sentiment in "He shall feed His flock" (surely one of the loveliest melodies in the literature) and there was a delightful gait to "O Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion." "All we like sheep" chugged along blithely and steadily, like a well-made machine, and the skies opened, right on schedule, in "Hallelujah!"
The soloists kept up their part. Tenor John Tessier sang with easy projection, innate dignity and a sure command of coloratura. David Pittsinger is a big, gruff, woolly and agile bass; it was a pleasure to hear him sing "And I will shake" while doing just that to the long and strenuous melody. Christine Brandes has a bright, brilliant soprano voice that softens sweetly when she wants it to. Phyllis Pancella's ornamentation occasionally sounded rather studied and artificial, and I prefer a bigger voice in this particular music. That said, her low notes were arrestingly dark and distinctive, and there was never any doubt of her empathy and artistry.
Several of the selections from Part 2 were likely unfamiliar to many in the audience. The aria "How beautiful are the feet of them who preach the gospel of peace" is often omitted but it is certainly timely right now. I was sorry that "He was despised" was truncated. This extensive and elaborate aria has more than once put me in mind of Samuel Johnson's comment on "Paradise Lost": "None ever wished it longer." And yet I did last night. Once you surrender to "He was despised," you don't mind if it goes on forever.
The program will be repeated tonight and tomorrow night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 1.